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Marching On: The Politics of Performance explores the histories, driving forces, and legacy of marching and organized forms of performance. African-American marching bands have long been powerful agents of cultural and political expression, celebrating collective identities and asserting rights to public space and visibility.
Historically rooted in military training exercises and combat formations, African-American marching bands and drumlines honored service in U.S. conflicts and highlighted the absence of civil rights despite sacrifices to defend the nation. While their movements, costumes, colors, and iconography have radically expanded since the nineteenth century to incorporate other forms of performance including dance lines, hip-hop, and step choreography, they still remain connected to a lineage of marching as political expression.
Commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture, Bryony Roberts and Mabel O. Wilsonhave created a research project and exhibition that explores the crucial role of the community’s collective movements as acts of both cultural expression and political resistance. The project was inaugurated with a series of performances that interwove echoes of the 1917 Silent March against racial violence with references to the revered Harlem Hellfighters. These performances were developed in collaboration with the Marching Cobras of New York, a Harlem-based after-school drumline and dance team, and presented in partnership with the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance as part of Performa 17. Read more about the performances .
For the exhibition, Roberts and Wilson combine the many layers of the research and performance project into a spatial installation. Continuing and expanding upon the theme of camouflage, the exhibition displays volumes of custom-printed fabric in hybridized patterns. In part, marching bands served as a form of camouflage that enabled African-Americans to gather and occupy public spaces when otherwise prohibited during the era of Jim Crow segregation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In response, the exhibition’s patterned textiles merge military camouflage with the geometric paving patterns of Marcus Garvey Park, the site of the inaugural Marching On performances. Changing color along the length of the gallery, the fabric creates pockets of space for thematic topics related to the history of race and urban public space. By layering photographs and text into the graphic patterns, the exhibition’s fabric panels play with the oscillation between visibility and invisibility.